5 Questions with Rob Zellers

The 8th reading in our FORUM “Soundings” series is MR. WHEELER’S by Rob Zellers. This reading will be begin at 7:00pm on January 19, 2015 and will be held at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Dreyfuss Theatre, 285 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ. Click here for directions. Click here for a printable map of the campus (the Dreyfuss Theatre is located in Building 9).

At Mr. Wheeler’s, a fast food restaurant in a rundown section of the dying inner city, a ragtag community of determined employees take another run at the Breakfast Shift. Their mundane routine is interrupted when “assistant manager” Ed finds a bag of cash in the basement that is of interest to the local drug trade.

Rob Zellers’ plays have been developed at Pittsburgh Public Theater, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Pioneer Theatre Company, The Lark, PlayPenn, New Harmony Project, Carnegie Mellon and Wake Forest Universities. He is co-author of The Chief, the most successful play in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s 40-year history, published by University of Pittsburgh Press and made into a feature film.  Other plays:  Harry’s Friendly Service, premiered Pittsburgh Public Theater 2009, Edgerton Award; Safekeeping, O’Neill Theatre Conference semi-finalist, winner Pen is a Mighty Sword Award, staged reading Boston’s Accessible Theatre Company.  Plays in development: The Red Cat, The Happiness They Seek, Smokey Hollow.

1) What was the inspiration for MR. WHEELER’S?
As a teacher and education director I work with a lot of young people.  Over time you become aware of various personality types, behaviors, logic, and outlook.  You notice the way particular students position themselves in the world and what they are thinking about the future.  Some of them can be inspiring.  This was my starting point for Mr. Wheeler’s.  I also love fast food.

2) Your play THE CHIEF was the most successful play in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s 40-year history and was later made into a feature film. What was it like to see your work go from stage to screen?
Interestingly enough, there was very little additional script work to do since the filmmakers wanted it to have the look of a play being filmed – complete with live audience.  They did a really good job – I mostly sat and watched them work.  Watching the film, sitting with all the other movie-goers in a theater in downtown Pittsburgh was strange and exciting.  I had a hard time paying attention.  I was much more interested in watching the audience watch the movie.

3)You have been the Education Director at Pittsburgh Public Theatre for 26 years. What do you hope students will take away from their classes?
It has been my mission to make what we do here accessible to young people.  We’ve created dozens and dozens of programs dealing with all aspects of plays and play production with the goal of getting young people through the doors.  Whether it’s seeing a play, getting acting or playwriting instruction seeing a technical theater demonstration, or performing in one of our spaces for family and friends, if they walk out of here having had a good experience and perhaps with a deeper understanding of what and how we do things, that’s a big win for our field.

4) We read an article about you in the Pittsburgh City Paper that said you “spent years absorbing the craft via behind-the-scenes observations of many dozen of productions before you tried playwriting.” What sort of behind-the-scenes work did you do and what made you want to try your hand at playwriting?
I came to theater after teaching high school for many years.  Once I got in the door, I felt I had a lot of catching up to do.  This meant sitting in on production meetings; watching sets go in, costumes added, lights focused; talking to designers; watching rehearsals, being on book, helping in whatever way I could; befriending actors, directors, dramaturgs and visiting playwrights – asking a lot of questions; attending countless preview performances then listening to notes; being a reader at auditions; going to see shows at other theaters; and reading a lot of plays.  Then one day, many years into being an arts administrator, it struck me that I really wanted to be part of the art.  Telling stories seemed to be the perfect point of entry.

5) Your hometown was Youngstown, Ohio and now you live in Pittsburgh, PA.   So do you bleed brown and orange or black and gold?
I’m a pretty serious Steelers fan.